In what’s most likely the first case of its kind, police investigating a murder in Bentonville, Arkansas, issued a warrant to Amazon.com to turn over audio and other records from an Amazon Echo.
The device belongs to James Andrew Bates, who’s been charged with first-degree murder. The victim, Victor Collins, was found dead in Mr. Bates’ hot tub one Sunday morning in November 2015.
Due to the so-called always on nature of the connected device, the authorities are after any audio the speaker may have picked up that night. Sure, the Echo is activated by certain words, but it’s not uncommon for the IoT gadget to be alerted to listen by accident like here and here.
Asparagustin on Reddit suggests this scenario:
Victim: “Alexa I need the police, I’m being murdered”
Alexa: “I have added ‘the police, I’m being murdered’ to your shopping list.
The Echo is not the only Internet of Things devices being used to gather evidence in the case. A connected water meter in Bates house shows that 140 gallons of water were used between 1 and 3 a.m. the night of the alleged murder. Police claim that Bates hosed down his patio and hot tub in order to hide evidence.
On January 13, 1999, it was reported the National Security Agency of the United States identified what was believed to be a spy that may have infiltrated its inner sanctums, describing it as “being less than a foot high, covered with red and orange fur, with watchful eyes and big ears”.
The description matched Furby, which some of the NSA’s employees brought to work to ease stress. Shortly afterward, the establishment banned Furbies from entering NSA’s property due to concerns that they may be used to record and repeat classified information, advising those that see any on NSA property to “contact their Staff Security Officer for guidance.”
Roger Shiffman, the owner of Tiger Electronics, stated that “Furby has absolutely no ability to do any recording whatsoever,” and would have gladly told the NSA this if he was asked from anyone from the spy agency.
Additionally, Dave Hampton demonstrated that Furby’s microphone can’t record any sound at all, and can only hear a single monotonous beep if a loud sound is produced around Furby, and no words or waveforms can be made out at all. He too was never questioned by the NSA, and he could have answered both questions easily.
You’ll be relieved to hear that the ban was eventually withdrawn.
Unlike the Furbies, Amazon has declined to answer how much voice information is stored online and how much if that is tied to your identity.
An Amazon spokesperson gave Engadget the following statement on the matter:
“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
Amazon won’t even release whether it’s been asked to provide information on government wiretap requests for the Echo in the past.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.